Hindi Features

Sexism In Cinema: A Study Of Over 4,000 Bollywood Films Shows What We’ve Known All Along

Padayappa is a super hit Rajinikanth film. It sets up a powerful woman – Nilambari, played by Ramya Krishnan, against Padayappa, a powerful man, played by Rajinikanth. A particularly important scene from the movie sees Nilambari and Padayappa at the former’s house, where a demure Vasundhara  played by Soundarya – Nilambari’s domestic help, serves tea. Vasundhara accidentally drops a cup, at which Nilambari rises up in anger to slap her.

Padayappa intervenes, restrains Nilambari’s hand and delivers a long speech about the character of women. Women ought not be angry, ought to be meek, ought to be this, ought to be that… it’s a long speech filled with instructions and codes of behaviour, and ends with a final punch line: A man who desires in excess, and an overly angry woman do not live well.

This scene, and the lines delivered by Rajinikanth was repeated ad nauseum by everybody, for the next few years. It became somewhat of a canon, and comes at the end of a long series of similar dialogues by Rajinikanth, and indeed, every other Tamil cinema hero. Tamil cinema attempts repeatedly to “tame” the “wild horse” woman, and make her a “pure” Tamil woman.


When people are asked about sexism in cinema, invariably these lines and similar scenes are pointed out.

And that’s true. These scenes do point to a deep underlying sexism and misogyny in society. We have strict codes of behaviour for women, and loose guidelines for men. Society and institutions have been designed, and have evolved over the years to benefit men and hinder women. One of which is what, and how, women express emotions. Women can cry, or laugh, or feel sad. No woman can lust, no woman can desire. No woman can be angry or loud. No woman can express ambition and hope. Unless it is the hope to get married to a nice, good, man chosen by the family, and hope for nice, good, children.

Sexism is rampant. Misogyny is ubiquitous. And cinema exhibits it and reflects it. But the Padayappa scene, and others, are just one aspect of it. We see it on screen, and depending on our personal beliefs, locations, and situations, we either applaud it or decry it.

A deeper form of sexism exists in how cinema is made, and that is not immediately seen on-screen. This is a more insidious, more damaging form of sexism, and is merely the extension of what is prevalent in larger society.  

A team of researchers from IBM India, IIIT Delhi, and DTU-Delhi, undertook a study of sexism in Hindi cinema – popularly referred to as Bollywood. The researchers analysed over 4,000 films released since 1970, and arrived at their conclusions.

In their study, the researchers looked at Bollywood movie plots, published scripts of films, trailers, posters, and other visual depictions of movies, to look at how sexism and bias is reflected.

The team studied the following aspects:

I) Occupations and Gender Stereotypes – How are males portrayed in their jobs vs females? How are these levels different? How does it correlate to gender bias and stereotype?

II) Appearance and Description – How are males and females described on the basis of their appearance? How do the descriptions differ in both of them? How does that indicate gender stereotyping?

III) Centrality of Male and Female Characters – What is the role of males and females in movie plots? How does the amount of male being central or female being central differ? How does it present a male or female bias?

IV) Mentions (Image vs Plot) – How many males and females are the faces of the promotional posters? How does this correlate to them being mentioned in the plot? What results are conveyed on the combined analysis?

V) Dialogues – How do the number of dialogues differ between a male cast and a female cast in official movie script?

VI) Singers – Does the same bias occur in movie songs? How does the distribution of singers with gender vary over a period of time for different movies?

VII) Female-centric Movies – Are the movie stories and portrayal of females evolving? Have we seen female-centric movies in the recent past?

VIII) Screen Time – Which gender, if any, has a greater screen time in movie trailers?

IX) Emotions of Males and Females – Which emotions are most commonly displayed by males and females in a movie trailer? Does this correspond with the gender stereotypes which exist in society?


The study, published recently, concluded (in agreement with what many, many, many, many women have been saying for years now) that sexism is displayed at an “intra-sentence” level, at a “inter-sentence” level, in these 4000 Bollywood films, and takes the form of how women are named, what words describe them, their relationships and positions in the film, what professions and aspirations they express in the films, how they are depicted on posters vs. how they are depicted within the movie, how much screen time they have, how much dialogue per film they get, and what emotions they can exhibit.

The study corroborates similar studies, especially ones carried out by the Geena Davis Institute for Women in Media. As Silverscreen earlier wrote, women in films get less than 50 percent of the screen time, and even fewer lines than the men.

Take, for instance, this finding by the Indian research team.

In mainstream films, such as Haider, Maqbool, Kaminey and others, released within the last few years, men on an average spoke for more than 65 percent of the movie. Even a film, touted as a feminist masterpiece, and one which made all the headlines for being progressive and spoke for and on behalf of women, literally spoke over the women. Men spoke for more than 75 percent of the time in Pink.

Only films like Queen, Nil Battey Sannata, Neerja, and Highway, which were “women-oriented” films, did the women have anything to say. 

As we earlier saw, a group consisting of only 17 percent women, is seen as equally distributed between the two mainstream genders, and a group with 33 percent women is seen as “women dominated”.

While “women oriented” films are on the rise, and more women have more, well defined roles in cinema these days (it took someone with the power and influence of Jyothika to push for Magalir Mattum) they are clearly exceptions. Your average film – Kapoor and Sons, Raman Raghav, and here in the south, films like Mersal, Muthuramalingam, Meesaya Murukku, and more, routinely get away with showing women in relation to the other men, not as living beings with their own wishes and hopes, and motives, in other words, with agency of their own. A woman in your average Bollywood film is either a man’s daughter or a lover, and is written into the script, and described in the plot, and shown on screen, as nothing more than that.

The research team opens their report with an example of that:

Movies are a reflection of the society. They mirror (with creative liberties) the problems, issues, thinking & perception of the contemporary society. Therefore, we believe movies could act as the proxy to understand how prevalent gender bias and stereotypes are in any society. In this paper, we leverage NLP and image understanding techniques to quantitatively study this bias. To further motivate the problem we pick a small section from the plot of a blockbuster movie.

“Rohit is an aspiring singer who works as a salesman in a car showroom, run by Malik (Dalip Tahil). One day he meets Sonia Saxena (Ameesha Patel), daughter of Mr. Saxena (Anupam Kher), when he goes to deliver a car to her home as her birthday present.”

This piece of text is taken from the plot of Bollywood movie Kaho Na Pyaar Hai. This simple two line plot showcases the issue in following fashion:

1. Male (Rohit) is portrayed with a profession & an aspiration.
2. Male (Malik) is a business owner.

In contrast, the female role is introduced with no profession or aspiration. The introduction, itself, is dependent upon another male character ”daughter of”!

Other aspects of the research focused on stereotypes of occupation, emotions, and the like. For instance, most women are shown as either school/college teachers, or as secretaries. It’s rare that a woman character is shown as a police officer or the head of a large business. Further, even in such depictions of teacher or doctor, the women will invariable need to be “rescued” from the evil villain, by the powerful hero. At much destruction to public property, the man will have saved the day, and the woman will have fallen in love with her ‘knight in shining armour’.

Men, on the other hand, are often shown in positions of power and authority, or as angry young men, rebels who change the corrupt system single-handedly.

Sexism in cinema isn’t just about the roles women play or the relationships they are permitted to have. After all, it is the rare Hindi or Tamil cinema that passes the Bechdel-Wallace test. It is also literally about how often they are seen on screen.


Take the film Mersal, for instance. Yes, there are strict parameters of what a masala, mass film can be. The man, the hero, is the only reason for that film. Everybody else exist to prop the hero up. But even within those parameters, some films manage to show women as being central to the plot – either a sister or a mother, or a lover. Motta Siva Ketta Siva, one of my favourite masala films, actually centralises a woman – especially a disabled woman who builds her own family of choice – and it is her death that the hero avenges. And in that revenge, in the action, a transgender woman becomes an important character, and the hero vows to protect her. However in Mersal, the women are entirely incidental, and entirely unnecessary to the film. Between the four actresses, they share a total screen time of about 25-30 percent.

As the researchers discovered during their study:

1. Screen-On Time – The figure below shows the percentage distribution of screen-on time for males and female characters in movie trailers. We see a consistent trend across the 10 years where mean screen-on time for females is only a meagre 31.5 percent compared to 68.5 percent of the time for male characters.

The screen time women have is further complicated because women are rarely mentioned in the plot synopsis, or named in the script. A woman, unless she is a lover of the hero, is not mentioned by name.

Joss Whedon’s original script for the Wonder Woman film was called out, particularly, for its treatment and its sexism. The script initially was written around Steve Trevor the airplane pilot and Diana’s love interest, and the first mention of the pronoun “she” was used for an airplane, and not for any of the Amazon women.

Even “progressive”, “feminist” films such as Pink, DangalIrudhi Sutru/Saala Khadoos are really man-as-saviour films disguised as feminist statements. The man –  lawyer, father, coach – are the ultimate authority figures and the women become their willing dependents, slaves, students, in a larger battle the man has, against the other man.


The study however holds out hope. It shows that the gender bias and sexism in Bollywood is slowly changing and more films are written with and for women. But till then: